Strikeforce: Melendez-Masvidal preview

With Strikeforce on Thursday announcing its contract renewal with Showtime, the organization appears to be alive and well under the Zuffa umbrella.

The California-based promotion returns Saturday with an intriguing lineup from the Valley View Casino in San Diego.

Two titles will be on the line as red-hot champion Gilbert Melendez defends the 155-pound championship against Jorge Masvidal, while Strikeforce queen Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos returns against Hiroko Yamanaka.

Here’s a closer look at the televised card:

Gilbert Melendez (19-2) vs. Jorge Masvidal (22-6)

The Strikeforce lightweight title is up for grabs as the consensus top-five world-ranked Melendez defends his gold against the emerging contender Masvidal.

Melendez, 29, is widely regarded as the best lightweight in the world not under a UFC contract. Despite UFC president Dana White repeatedly expressing interest in bringing Melendez into the promotion, the California native must first pass what could be his last test as a Strikeforce champion.

Fresh off wins over Josh Thomson, Shinya Aoki and Tatsuya Kawajiri, Melendez has been on a tear over the last several years. The Cesar Gracie disciple, a Brazilian jiujitsu brown belt, is a strong submission wrestler with a striking game that continues to improve with each showing.

Melendez simply obliterated Kawajiri in his last bout this past April, but he has competed only once in 2010 and once in 2011. Inactivity  certainly is hurting his standing as a top lightweight, but another decisive victory over a game challenger like Masvidal should silence any remaining critics.

Masvidal, 27, is an experienced competitor with notable wins over the likes of Joe Lauzon, Yves Edwards and Satoru Kitaoka. In his last two fights since joining Strikeforce, Masvidal has notched one-sided decision wins over the previously unbeaten Billy Evangelista and former EliteXC champion KJ Noons.

The American Top Team product has competed in both the 155-pound and 170-pound categories throughout his career, even fighting Paul Daley to a razor-thin decision loss in September 2010, but he’s at his best at lightweight.

An aggressive fighter with crisp boxing, the former streetfighter is a tough challenge for the dominant champion. However, Melendez can always resort to his wrestling if Masvidal is lighting him up on his feet.

If Masvidal’s wrestling has improved and he’s able to stuff the champion’s shot, it could turn into a highly competitive fight. But Melendez simply has more tools, which should allow him to dictate how the fight plays out.

Masvidal is no joke, and he’s unlikely to go down without a fight, but Melendez can use his suffocating top control and effective clinch work to wear the challenger down over 25 minutes. After five rounds, Melendez should get his hand raised and potentially move on to greater opportunities in the UFC.

Verdict: Melendez via decision.

Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos (10-1) vs. Hiroko Yamanaka (12-1)

Widely regarded as the world’s premier female pound-for-pound fighter, "Cyborg" finally returns to defend her 145-pound crown against the Jewels veteran Yamanaka.

Santos, 26, wife of well-travelled veteran Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos, put the mixed martial arts world on notice in 2008 with crushing victories over Shayna Baszler and Yoko Takahashi.

She carried her success into the Strikeforce cage, stopping all four of her adversaries in impressive fashion, including a first-round TKO of Gina Carano in the first female main event on a major mixed martial arts broadcast.

A world jiujitsu champion as a purple belt, "Cyborg" has rarely resorted to grappling with her opponents, as she utilizes her devastating muay thai to dominate fights.

The Chute Boxe Academy product under Rudimar Fedrigo is one of the most dominant fighters in the world today and there’s little reason to doubt she will continue her reign of supremacy on Saturday night.

Yamanaka, 33, has an impressive record with wins over Takahashi, Hitomi Akano and Molly Helsel.

Primarily regarded as a submission grappler, Yamanaka is no stranger to the striking game as she has competed for the Japanese Shoot Boxing organization, which is essentially a striking-only hybrid form of mixed martial arts.

On paper, Yamanaka is certainly a worthy challenger for "Cyborg," but that’s no reason to give her much of a chance.

Unless the Japanese fighter can pull off a miracle submission or connect with a shocking combination, "Cyborg" should dominate the fight from start to finish.

Yamanaka will likely survive the early onslaught, but the vicious strikes will eventually take their toll as she succumbs to a barrage from the champion in the middle stanza.

Verdict: Santos via KO, Round 3.

Gegard Mousasi (31-3-2) vs. Ovince St. Preux (11-4)

The Dream light heavyweight champion Mousasi returns to Strikeforce for a showdown with rising contender St. Preux.

In 2009, Mousasi was touted as the future of the sport. Riding a 15-fight winning streak that included wins over Bellator champion Hector Lombard, former Strikeforce champions Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Renato "Babalu" Sobral and Pride veterans Denis Kang, Melvin Manhoef, Mark Hunt and Gary Goodridge, Mousasi was tearing through the ranks in a resounding manner.

However, the Armenian’s momentum came to a halt in April 2010 as he dropped a one-sided unanimous decision to American wrestler Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal. Mousasi was controlled on the mat for 25 minutes, unable to amount any significant offense of his own.

The Golden Glory and Red Devil Sports Club product bounced back with successive submissions of Jake O’Brien and Tatsuya Mizuno in Japan, but he fought Keith Jardine to a lackluster draw under the Strikeforce banner this past April. The fight should have actually been scored in his favor, but the judges weren’t convinced. In his most recent fight, Mousasi finished Hiroshi Izumi in the first round to retain his Dream title.

A sensational striker with an unbeaten kickboxing record, including wins over Japanese K-1 greats Musashi and Kyotaro, Mousasi is also a judo black belt with crafty submission skills.

St. Preux, 28, is carrying an eight-fight winning streak into the biggest fight of his career. The Haitian-American is coming off wins over Joe Cason, Abongo Humphrey, Benji Radach, Antwain Britt and Jason Day.

Anchored at Knoxville MMA in Tennessee, St. Preux possesses solid strikes, as evidenced by his first-round stoppage of Cason this past July, but he’s most successful when relying on his wrestling base, which also happens to be Mousasi’s weakness.

Mousasi has been working diligently to improve his takedown defense, which should come in handy against the former linebacker at the University of Tennessee.

St. Preux is a fighter to watch in the future, but he may be biting off more than he can chew against Mousasi at this stage in his career.

With another solid victory, Mousasi could re-establish himself at the forefront of top contenders for the vacant Strikeforce light heavyweight title.

Knowing what’s at stake, we can expect to see the soft-spoken Armenian showcase his dynamic blend of kickboxing to break St. Preux down over the course of three rounds.

Verdict: Mousasi via decision.

KJ Noons (10-4) vs. Billy Evangelista (11-1)

In a lightweight matchup pitting Jorge Masvidal’s two most recent victims, Noons and Evangelista are fighting for relevance in the Strikeforce 155-pound picture.

Noons, 29, has made a seamless transition from boxing to mixed martial arts, earning marquee wins over Nick Diaz and Yves Edwards under the EliteXC banner to become their lightweight titleholder.

The Hawaiian Sanshou specialist is 2-2 since signing with Strikeforce. He won his first two bouts against Conor Heun and Jorge Gurgel, but he dropped subsequent decisions to Diaz in their rematch and Masvidal in his most recent bout this past June.

A Kenpo karate black belt, Noons is a versatile striker with solid takedown and submission defense. He gave top UFC welterweight contender Diaz all he could handle in their heated rematch last October, proving that he’s still a force to be reckoned with.

Evangelista, 31, was undefeated in 12 career fights until he met Masvidal in March. Evangelista had no answers for Masvidal’s furious boxing and clinch control and he dropped a unanimous decision.

Based at the acclaimed American Kickboxing Academy, Evangelista is surrounded by top talent on a daily basis, including Josh Thomson, Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck. The Californian is a well-rounded fighter with notable wins over Nam Phan, Gurgel and Waachim Spiritwolf, but his striking is unlikely to be on par with Noons.

Evangelista will come forward looking to close the distance and use his movement to frustrate Noons, but it simply won’t be enough. If Noons can turn this lightweight affair into a striking match, he should be heavily favored to pick Evangelista apart en route to a competitive decision.

Verdict: Noons via decision.